At an ancient ryokan hotel, you find shoji paper screens on doors, tatami reed mats on floors, warm wooden structural elements to break up expanses of walls, and the many textures of the Yukata provided for guests to enjoy within the ryokan or while exploring the local onsen spa town.
At the other end of the accommodation experience you’ll find business hotel chains like Toyoko Inn, omnipresent near Japan’s train stations, the blue billboards on top of prefabricated, similar-looking buildings shining through the night in a genius branding decision.
The myriad shades of beige and the bemusing paintings in the older hotels (your author described one piece of art recently as “Haunted Cabot Cove”) can feel a little out of place, but even here there is a clear concept — and an evolutionary pattern of guest experience upgrades, with power sockets and USB ports arriving near the bed recently.
Elsewhere in travel within the country, the Shinkansen bullet trains’ Green Car (roughly equivalent to business class) and Gran Class (a newer, more first class, experience only on some trains) are informative.
While design here is very conservative — with the exception of the delightfully whimsical Mitooka Eiji interiors for newer Kyushu and Nishi-Kyushu Shinkansen trains — the Green Car cabins themselves are warm, inviting and highly textured, featuring plush seating fabrics to carpeted footrests and fresh cotton antimacassars, while Gran Class feels like an airline premium cabin, down to the attendant offering upmarket and delightful light refreshments.
Equally fascinating is the hybridisation of luxury ancient and modern.
On the one hand, trains like JR East’s Ken Okuyama-designed Saphir Odoriko blend space-age hard surfaces and rotating reclining pod seats in a panoramic train car that would feel up to date in a modern premium airline cabin.
Yet the same train offers a plushly upholstered set of leather-covered private compartments featuring richly textured spaces and the aesthetic of someone’s wealthy great-grandparents’ library.
Selecting materials that bring textured depth to the cabin, complement each other, are hard-wearing, and can last through multiple airline identities is all critical, not least since cabin and airline branding lifecycles rarely coincide. So is ensuring that soft product, from pillows and blankets to coasters — for more Japan inspiration here, consider Japan Airlines’ sustainable and beautiful washi paper coasters — can add even more depth to the cabin. Your author was struck, walking through Japan’s excellent railway museums and their lovingly preserved train interiors this last month, how luxury comes back into style, whether through carefully preserved historic trains and carriages or their modern equivalents — French hotel titan Accor’s resurrection of the Orient Express name, for example.
Any perception of quality is, of course, a cultural concept, with generations of memory and attachment that stretch back to dimly remembered antecedents. What our grandparents considered the heights of luxury might now at best be fondly recalled through rose-tinted glasses as quaint. But threads of luxury remain throughout the years, including in tangible parts of the experience that we can touch, and invite us to touch. Within the airline cabin, designers have a wider range of textures, effects, and materials than ever before, making this new challenge an exciting one.